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Bonobos use specific sounds (like barks and grunts) to describe food, say researchers

May 2, 2009 |  2:20 pm

Bonobo Bonobos, much like some people, aren't big on eating vegetables -- at least, not according to a group of researchers who studied the great apes at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park

Their study, to be published in the journal Animal Behavior, also offers the interesting insight that bonobos use vocalizations to "rate" different types of food.  Discovery News reports:

Since the calls are tonally similar to certain other primate sounds, such as the human exclamations "Yum!" and "Ewww," the scientists think there might be a somewhat universal primate language when it comes to food.

"It's an interesting possibility, which seems to be true for apes and humans," co-author Klaus Zuberbuhler told Discovery News, explaining that both groups can "modify the acoustic structure of their calls, and so reflect the quality of the food they've encountered." 

Figs got a perfect score, with raisins a close second. In order from most to least favored, the rest of the list read: grapes, bananas, popcorn, apples, oranges, biscuits, celery, melon, lettuce, yams and peppers.

"It appears that energy-rich succulent fruits were the most favored of foods," [co-author Zanna Clay] told Discovery News.

The scientists determined five unique vocal sounds used by the bonobos in response to the foods: barks, peeps, peep-yelps, yelps and grunts.  (Discovery's Born Animal blog offers audio samples of each.) 

Barks were typically reserved for the bonobos' favorite foods (think figs and raisins).  Their least favorites (like peppers) usually got a grunt. 

This new information is significant because many scientists are reluctant to admit that non-human primates can convey specific information through vocalizations.  "The resistance to this in the scientific community is enormous," William Fields of the Great Ape Trust told Discovery News.

--Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Anjan Sundaram / Associated Press

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